This story was originally published on June 4, 2019.
Ohio suspended the driver’s licenses of more than 1 million people, many of whom can’t afford to get those licenses back. But that doesn’t mean they’re not on the road. So until July 31, the state is offering a limited amnesty. On paper, it looks like Ohio is forgiving $500 million dollars in reinstatement penalties. But, advocates see it as a crucial investment in people, jobs and community.
Many poor and working-class people can’t afford to stop driving just because their licenses are suspended.
The amnesty program now in effect recognizes that and two other realities many of these people face. They also can’t afford huge reinstatement fees. Paying it off in installments sounds good in theory, but it runs into the reality of people like Brad Mitchell, who has been making payments religiously and would still have needed another two decades to clear away what he owes.
“I was pretty much buried up to my neck,” he said.
Mitchell didn’t get his license until three years ago, when he turned 30. Things had just kind of snowballed. He first got nailed for driving without a license when he was 18. He couldn’t pay that penalty and afford insurance. But he had to drive to work. So he kept getting stopped.
“I did it again. I did it again. I did it again,” he said.
Seventeen “agains” recorded in Barberton Municipal Court alone, and more were recorded in Massillon.
The penalties quickly escalated to $650 per incident, a mound of debt that soon topped $10,000.
He drove uninsured junkers, figuring they wouldn’t be missed as much when they were confiscated.
“I was always looking over my shoulder for police. I had to drive without a license, but I had buried myself so bad I couldn’t get out,” he said.
Mitchell acknowledged his life was less than perfect in other ways, with drugs among them. But, he got clean, got married, got two jobs, and got custody of his kids.
“I wanted to be a part of their lives," he said. "I didn’t want to be the father who wasn’t around, didn’t have a job, who the cops were pulling up to our house over some stuff I was doing, driving without a license, towing my car away.”
So he got onto a plan to pay off what he owed the state, $50 every month. He figured he’d be in his mid-to-late 50s by the time he paid it all. But the amnesty program cut the debt by more than two-thirds. Mitchell said he’s now down to owing just a few hundred dollars.
He’s one of an estimated 300,000 people who could qualify for the limited amnesty.
Barberton Municipal Judge Todd McKinney is an advocate for the amnesty program, and his court has been active in helping people navigate a complicated process, as it did with Mitchell.
McKinney said payment plans alone are a good step, but unrealistic for many, who also must come up with money for insurance and court costs.
And he said the penalties can be self-defeating. It’s hard to pay for reinstatement and insurance when you don’t have a job, and it’s hard to get and hold a job if you don’t have a license. So many suspended drivers stay on the road, without the state’s blessing and insurance. Amnesty changes that dynamic.
“This enables people to both get jobs and also to work off their penalties. Without it, what people continue to do is they keep driving, and then my fear is they just give up at some point, and they no longer fear the consequences,” McKinney said.
Or, he said, they fear them too much, running from police when they’re pulled over.
The amnesty program has limits, income among them. It reduces or waives only Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicle fees, not fines or court costs. Drivers must have complied with all judge’s orders, including remedial driving classes and insurance. The program also doesn’t apply to drivers whose licenses were suspended because of alcohol, drugs or guns.
Bill Dowling runs the amnesty program for the University of Akron legal clinic. About 50 people on a Saturday morning met with volunteers who helped them navigate the online process. A representative of the BMV mans a computer to answer questions.
Dowling said on paper, Ohio is owed more than $500 million by people whose licenses the state suspended. But he maintains, the state was never going to see most of that money, and lawmakers have been sensitive to a different argument.
“They want to, for the benefit of the state of Ohio, get people to work and get people to work in legitimate jobs, paying taxes, etc.,” he said.
The Ohio State Bar Association is lobbying the Legislature to extend the program beyond July 31. But if lawmakers don’t do it, higher courts might. A federal judge in Tennessee recently ruled that state’s reinstatement requirements were unconstitutional because they unfairly penalized poor people who couldn’t pay the fees. In one swoop, 250,000 people got their licenses back.
For now, Ohio is doing it one license at a time.
Editor's note: M.L. Schultze will be reporting stories each month for WKSU about social justice issues.
How Ohio’s trial driver’s license amnesty works
The program forgives all or part of the reinstatement fees charged by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles for a list of 25 offenses, which carry fees ranging from $15 to $650 per incident
Who is eligible? The program is based on income.
- Those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits must show proof of the benefits and must have completed all court-ordered sanctions such as the fines that led to the suspension. (Court costs do not need to be paid off, but payment plans often are set up.)
- Those who don’t get SNAP benefits face limits on how much will be waived and must wait 18 months since their last suspension period ended. They, too, must have completed all court-ordered sanctions, including fines.
What suspensions are eligible? Twenty-five offenses qualify, including driving without a license and driving without insurance. Click here for the full list. Suspensions for alcohol, drugs or gun violations are not eligible.
How long is the program in place? Applications must be received or postmarked by July 31, 2019.
How to apply? Some legal aid clinics and courts, including Barberton Municipal Court, are helping people apply. The applications are available online, but applications for a reduction and for a full waiver are handled differently.
- Fee reduction applications can be handled entirely through the Ohio BMV website.
They can also be handled at BMV deputy registrar licensing agencies.
- Applications for a full waiver must be done by mail at Ohio BMV
P.O. Box 16521
Columbus, OH 43216-6521
Click here for a link to more answers about the program.
University of Akron's Re-Entry Clinic
One of the most active re-entry programs in Ohio is the University of Akron law school’s Re-entry Clinic, which helps Akron residents and some from other parts of Summit County with sealing records, employment certificates and driver’s license amnesty.
Next clinic: Saturday, June 15, 9 a.m. to noon 941 Princeton St. Akron, OH 44311
- Driver’s license or identification card
- Proof of address (mail)
- Date of birth
- Last four numbers of Social Security Number
- Pay stub
Many county and regional legal aid societies also are offering help with the trial driver’s license amnesty program, known as V.A.L.I.D, that expires July 31.